It’s weed against weed in parts of rural Oklahoma, as the state’s medical marijuana growers clash with traditional agriculture producers over the use of herbicides and pesticides.
State Rep. Dick Lowe, R-Amber, said disputes have arisen as the state entered its grass-growing season and cannabis growers tried to stop agriculture producers from spraying pastures because of fears the chemicals would drift, accidentally snuffing out their new neighbors’ lucrative marijuana crops.
While most farmers attempt to spray on windless days, experts acknowledge that herbicides and pesticides can accidentally drift onto surrounding properties. Farmers are worried they could be held liable if their herbicide or pesticide inadvertently reaches a grow house, killing or making a cannabis crop unusable.
Some grow houses, meanwhile, have been built right up to the property line, Lowe said, and others have grow operations next to roadways, complicating efforts by counties and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to use chemicals to control weed growth along public roadways.
He said the issue has grown more pressing due to the explosion of grow operations. Medical marijuana licensing records show there are more than 2,000 grow operations around the state. Lowe’s home county of Grady has 307 licensed grow operations alone, including four within a two-mile radius of his home.
“They’re scattered around all through the counties. It’s not like they’re just in a little place or two, it’s everywhere,” Lowe said.
Lowe, who raises show sheep, sprays his grazing land to eliminate weeds.
He is co-sponsoring an interim study exploring ways medical marijuana growers and traditional agriculture can coexist.
“For the most part these incidents are isolated, but the reason that it is so severe is just the cost and the price of a crop,” said Chip Paul, an advocate for the medical marijuana industry. “An acre of marijuana is worth substantially more than an acre of wheat or an acre of cotton.”
He said the issue needs to be regulated, perhaps requiring traditional agriculture producers to give marijuana growers a head’s up before they begin to spray their fields, and perhaps by requiring favorable wind conditions before they’re allowed to receive a spray permit.
Paul said farmers have always been respectful of each other and unless it’s essential for their livelihood, have been willing to alter what they’re doing out of respect for their neighbors.
“For some reason, the cannabis grower just isn’t accepted into that community right yet,” Paul added.
Lee Rhoades, laboratory program oversight manager with the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, said pesticides are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, which establishes allowable amounts on food products. But the EPA has not approved or designated pesticide thresholds for cannabis, so Oklahoma, like other states, has adopted the position that there is no allowable amount. The lab tests for the presence of pesticides on marijuana crops, and under the current rules there is no remediation allowed for cannabis that tests positive for pesticides, meaning it cannot be sold or transferred.
He also noted that medical marijuana is consumed differently than other foods because some users smoke it, inhaling the smoke into their lungs, effectively bypassing nearly all of the body’s defense mechanisms by going straight into the blood stream. Some pesticides when ignited also create toxic compounds like hydrogen cyanide, Rhoades said.
He said that currently a relatively small percentage of batches are failing because of pesticide usage.
“Of course as you can imagine, they get upset about that,” Rhoades said, adding that some of the growers are blaming pesticide drift.
The Oklahoma Wheat Commission deferred comment to the state’s Wheat Growers Association. Neither that group nor the Oklahoma Farm Bureau responded to requests for comment.
State Rep. Carl Newton, R-Cherokee, another co-sponsor of the interim study, also said most farmers try to spray when there is no wind, but fans within the grow houses are exacerbating the issue by sucking the pesticides onto the marijuana crops.
“I think as a legislature we need to be conscientious of making sure we’re setting the appropriate guidelines for the future if we’re going to have this,” Newton said. “We’ve kind of got the Wild West going on right now.”
He also said the issue is especially pressing in western Oklahoma where farmers often rely on no-till farming techniques in an effort to preserve water. It’s not uncommon for a farmer to spray his crop with some form of herbicide at least twice a year, Newton said.
Newton also said any new regulations would likely have to be grandfathered in so as not to impact existing businesses, though lawmakers have also looked at beginning to limit the number of grow operations as licenses begin to expire.
“Granted we’re late to the ballgame, but it’s better to be late than not show up at all,” Newton said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.